Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Book Tour: The Handmaid's Tale

A little while ago, I joined my very first book club. Well, joined is a strong word, since this is a drop in for the books you like affair. And I sort of cheated, since I have been meaning to read the book up for discussion, The Handmaid's Tale, for a while now. I am glad I finally did.

Intrigued by the idea of a book tour and want to read more about The Handmaid's Tale? Hop along to more stops on the Barren Bitches Book Brigade by visiting the master list at http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/. Want to come along for the next tour? Sign up begins today for tour #9 (The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler with author participation!) and all are welcome to join along . All you need is a book and blog.

The way the book tour works is that we get a list of questions from other participants (thanks, Mel!), choose three, and answer them. I will, however, start with an observation that has been turning in my head since half-way through the book.

I see the book as suggesting many different themes, a number of them certainly not loosing their relevance to society and individuals in the years since the book was written. I honestly don't know whether I would've paid as much attention to some of the themes in the book if I wasn't where I am today in my life. A clearest example of that is the theme of baby Angela.

When we see her birth through the eyes of the narrator, we are encouraged by that point of view to sympathize with the Handmaidens. The community of them are there for the woman in labor, who, it seems in the act of it, gains her own name back. The narrator, who has known this woman since before they each were assigned to the different Commanders, starts the chapter calling her Ofwarren, the name that indicates nothing but the Commander she belongs to, but gradually replaces it with her given name, Janine. We see Janine struggle through the birth, and we see, as a grotesque caricature, the Wife of Warren, going through a pretend birth, surrounded by other Wifes. The baby is then taken from Janine, and she is surrounded by other Handmaidens, protecting her from having to see her child with the woman who will raise her. We also see the Wifes surround the Wife of Warren, who names the baby-- Angela-- and appears triumphant. This is all we see at the end of that chapter, and the injustice of a Handmaid's life overwhelms, at least it overwhelmed me enough to not notice right away that the only woman bereft of her own name in this triangle is the Wife. She is just the Wife of Warren. The baby girl has a name, and the Handmaid has one. But the Wife is just a Wife.

Sympathy is a funny thing. It can be influenced by how the story is told, or whether it is told. We find out of baby Angela's demise through seeing Janine reassigned to a different Commander. Only then do I find myself desperately wanting to know things I can't know, because the narrator isn't privy to them or because she doesn't choose to talk about them. I want to know what makes a baby a shredder. What was wrong with baby Angela? I want to know how she was taken. Did she die? Or did the doctor declare her an unbaby, and took her, from someone's arms? Whose? I want to know who mourned her. Who cried for her? I want to know, I actually want to believe, that the Wife of Warren mourned and cried. I want to believe that she named that baby so early, contrary to this new custom, we are told (but not until we hear that the baby is gone), not out of vanity, but out of love. I want to believe she waited for that baby, longed for her. Knowing these things won't make things ok, won't make the social order acceptable. It wouldn't even illuminate the feelings of all Wifes. For all we know, the Wife of Warren is unusual in this attachment I have constructed for her, but I want to know nonetheless.

For whose sake do I want to know these things? The characters are made up, so it is probably fair to say that this ultimately is for me. It is me who needs to believe that every baby deserves to be mourned, that everyone who calls herself a mother will mourn. Not all in the same way, but all in our hearts. And I am pretty sure that had I read this book before my son died these wouldn't have been the questions I would've asked or the ones to which I would keep coming back in my mind, over and over.

Q. People very often cope with death or uncomfortable situations by resorting to euphemisms. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood quite deliberately chooses instead to refer to infants with disabilities, or infants that have died, through the use of a dysphemism (an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression substituted for a pleasant or inoffensive one) - "shredder." How did this term affect you? Did you even take note of it? Why might Atwood have chosen such a word? How does it reflect or not reflect the contemporary discourse around pregnancy loss, still birth, and infant death as you may have experienced it?

Shredder wasn't the first term she used. It was the gentler "unbaby" first, almost as if easing us into the reality of this world. The unbaby was stark, but a lot easier to take. Shredder evoked the vision of the machine, a gruesome image. And even though the narrator made a point of saying nobody knows what happens to the shredder babies, it is clear that it is nothing good. We also do not know where the line is. Are only the perfect babies, ones who don't need medical care beyond weighing and measuring, keepers? Does a heart murmur make one a shredder? What about asthma?

In my early days of grieving I remember thinking that it must be easier to take the loss of your baby if you knew there was something desperately wrong with them, that the baby wouldn't live. How silly of me. It doesn't matter what the objective truth was. This was still a baby, loved and wanted, dreamed about, the baby that inspired smiles of wistful daydreams, the baby for whom the nursery was painted, or put together, or just planned, or even just imagined. This was still someone's heart, external, in peril. The term shredder implies that this baby wasn't going to make it, so it's ok, back to the recycling bin with the products of conception, off to try again. This is the way for society to harden itself to the overwhelming statistics-- 1 in 4 she tells us, but I couldn't tell whether 1 in 4 survives or is a gonner. Either way, the pain would be all around, but calling these babies shredders dehumanizes them, dictates the attitude towards them and their parents, even dictates the attitude their parents should adopt.

In our own society dead babies are rarely discussed in polite conversation. Many, probably most, parents of dead babies report that at least some people around them expect them to be "over it" already within weeks or months. Certainly a year or two down the road. It is even more true for miscarriages, and only slightly less true for older dead children. I can't speak for others, but this attitude does in fact make me feel like my child was disposable. Because, see, I am still young, and I can always have another. That I love this one, that he has a name, that he is my son, that I miss his presence and all the things I will never know about him, are of no consequence to most people. To them, he is a shredder.

Q. On pg. 112, during the birth day while Ofwarren is in labor, Offred is thinking about the baby that is about to be born. At this time she also talks about the unborn babies and the fact that they had no way of telling until birth what type of baby would be born. She states: There's no telling. They could tell once, with machines, but that is now outlawed. What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can't have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term. While reading this, I found myself thinking back to my first pregnancy where I wound up with conjoined twins. Then and even now, I wonder if I would've been better off not knowing. I miscarried, so I did not have to make a choice, but in light of that, ignorance may very well have been bliss. How do you feel about the abundance of technology when it comes to reproduction and pregnancy? Do you think that sometimes not knowing so much can be a good thing?

I noticed that passage, I noted that in the world of the novel it absolutely has to be that way. But even in the middle of reading that very intense chapter this paragraph made me angry. While I can certainly sympathize with not wanting to know, not wanting to have to make decisions, not living the horror that is carrying a very sick baby or babies, I can't help but remember that there are also conditions of pregnancy that threaten women's lives. Hydrocephalus, for one, would more than likely kill a woman trying to birth that baby vaginally. Pre-eclampsia would absolutely kill a woman who is not delivered early, and in Gilead, nobody will be delivered early. An infection that spreads from inside the sack to the uterus and to the mother while she waits to birth what is now a doomed or dead baby can kill the mother. This dehumanizes women, reduces them to nothing but their reproductive organs. Their lives are worth less than that of a fetus of unknown health status.

But even the babies are not a concern in the world of Gilead, really. Personally, I am not a close your eyes and hope for the best person. I want to make decisions, and take responsibility for them. I know a lot of people are not like that. It doesn't mean I am happy to find myself in any which situation. This is, for example, why I am very adamant to only do a single embryo transfer-- I don't want to be in a situation where there are decisions to be made that I am not comfortable making one way or the other. In Gilead, a baby with special needs is a shredder, so preparing for those special needs as the technology is allowing us to do now is not a concern in that world. In our world, I would want to know what to prepare for. I would want to have specialists in a given condition on standby, to help my baby as soon as that baby is born. Similarly, in Gilead, the mother with pre-eclampsia will die, but so will her baby. She will die for nothing but the idea, a blind obedience to the principle.

Let me go a step further and say that this particular aspect is a very logical conclusion to the policies advocated by a segment of the US political landscape. Banning abortions is a plank of the Republican party platform, but universal health care is not. Neither is affordable child care, universal early education, or even financing successful early intervention programs. Pro-birth, is what these people are. Once born, to them, the babies are either lucky enough to have parents who can afford things they need, or they might as well be shredders.

Q. In chapter 6 (page 33 in my book), Atwood writes a train of thought that runs through the narrator's mind: "I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy's garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other." The narrator does this to exercise her mind, maintain the distinctions between things and states "I need to be very clear, in my own mind." In times of crises, it is easy to have things melt together--to see connections where you may not have noticed them if you were not paying close attention to every detail. Do you think people in a crisis see more slights, more rudeness, more insensitivity than is actually there (is a statement merely a statement without a commentary on the other person) or do you think these slights, rudeness, and insensitivity exists, but we are too caught up in the good times to care or notice?

The slights are real. Flaunting one's fertility in front of an infertile friend is so common-place it feels trite to even bring it up. Complaining about how hard it is to take care of two young children to a mother whose baby died just a few months earlier is real. It doesn't mean that it is not hard to take care of two young children, but it does suggest that paying attention to the context of the conversation is advisable. To me, this is a question of on whom do we as a society and as individuals place responsibility. Should it be the responsibility of a person dealing with hard times to make sure to not inconvenience the self-absorbed lucky majority, or should we ask the majority to consider what they are doing and saying, and to whom? I personally believe that sensitivity is a learned skill, and that it is a good skill to learn.

People make small talk, and sometimes they do it without thinking. We had friends over a few months back, pregnant with their third child. They moved away to a different city a few years ago, but still are a part of our group of friends and come to visit, or go away with us pretty often. So in this particular moment, our female friend went upstairs to deal with the kids for a few minutes, and her husband was downstairs talking with us. As a closing thought on all the kids he hasn't seen in a while and his own impending arrival, he sort of trailed off in a thoughtless "so many kids, kids, more and more kids, it's horrible-- they keep appearing." By which he, of course, meant that living in a different city the changes are stark. But he shouldn't have said that to us. Being a close enough friend, I called him on it, I said "please think about what you are saying and to whom." And he apologized, sincerely. Another friend of mine actually told me fairly early on that she is sure she will put her foot in her mouth because there will be a lot of triggers even I wouldn't be able to anticipate ahead of time, and she asked me to call her on this when it happens. I have, and she always apologized, and has since minded every one of those particular triggers very carefully.

What I am saying is that it is possible to be a good and mindful friend, a good and mindful person. Sure, it takes more work than just verbalizing whatever pops into your mind. But that's ok-- this is why we are adults.


Beruriah said...

Wow. Wow. A post well worth the wait. Absolutely the most thoughtful one I've seen so far, and I'm not just a biased super-fan of yours.

I think you captured exactly what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote the question about shredders, and I wondered about Atwood's context for it.

And yes, in addition to the loss of the babies, you noted exactly what was so frightening about the lack of prenatal testing - the way it highlighted that women were disposable in Gilead. Which, in a society with their rate of infertility, is confounding. Or should be. Of course own political situation certainly shows that people do not behave communally with reason. I am reminded of Mel's response to one of the questions she chose, where were the outsiders? what were other places facing? I want to know so much more about Atwood's imagined world here.

Thanks, Julia, for such a thoughtful post.

Lori said...

I haven't read this book (I don't know what rock I've been living under), but your analysis and answers were still of tremendous interest to me. It sounds like an intriguing, but also disturbing story. Pieces of what you shared reminded me of "The Giver". Are there similarities?

I was very moved by what you said about wanting to know that baby Angela was mourned, and then your questions to yourself as to why. I find myself thinking similar thoughts even with fictional characters, or even real people I have no way of knowing the inner workings of their mind and heart. I know that for me it is often about validation. If it appears that other women are able to dismiss and move past their own baby's death so easily, then I start to question my own inability to do the same. It also sharpens my insecurity as to what others think of my loss, and my babies brief lives. I realize this is largely what you were saying as well, so I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying that I agree completely.

You are so smart and articulate!

Tash said...

A most excellent post. Q's 2 & 3 v. relevant to my situation, so I was extremely grateful for your well-thought out answers and interpretations. As to point 3 though, riddle me this: No one, save one who is bound by doctor's privledge, at my daughter's school knows of my loss. It hasn't come up. I'm not going to thrust it somewhere where it doesn't belong. It will soon enough, I'm sure. BUT, the INANE CRAP that people say I find atrocious. I'm almost ready to call someone on it, even though it would be shocking for them. Do you think, we as a society, should simply STOP with the stupid small talk about children? Why ask? It's none of our business how many kids people have or want to. Was the night you woke up 4x for your baby really "the worst night imaginable"? Should people think generally before speaking to ANYONE?

Samantha said...

These are incredibly thoughtful comments on the book. Truthfully I had not considered how the Wife of Warren felt at the loss of Angela, your post has really made me think more deeply about all of the characters.

Your comments on the last question really tie into how we all have a different life perspective and experience, and as adults need to be sensitive to others. I am glad that your friends, even while they slip up, are able to take your comments to heart. It will make the world a kinder place for all of us.

Bon said...

wow, indeed. between you and Beruriah and the other posts, i find myself really really wanting to go back and read this again...it's been nearly twenty years, and clearly i had a very different perspective on it back in high school than i likely would now. i'd forgotten the character of baby Angela entirely, in fact. whereas if i read it now, i'm not sure i'd remember anyone else.

"That I love this one, that he has a name, that he is my son, that I miss his presence and all the things I will never know about him, are of no consequence to most people. To them, he is a shredder."

this encapsulated something for me, some piece of hurt i've been carrying and haven't known how to express. thank you.

loribeth said...

Absolutely, wow. Thank you for such an eloquent & thoughtful analysis. I'm a bereaved mom as well, and I couldn't agree with you more on just about every point you raised. This is going in my favourites folder!

deanna said...

This statement of yours made my heart surge in agreement: "Sure, it takes more work than just verbalizing whatever pops into your mind. But that's ok-- this is why we are adults."

It's not easy, or convenient, to be considerate of others' pain, but that doesn't mean it's okay to just skip out on empathy. It's a learned skill, something that deserves the effort involved and serves to create tighter communities. I admire you for having the nerve to call people out on their indiscretions. That's something I have a hard time imagining doing, but maybe someday I will find the courage.

The Dunn Family said...

I must say, your post made me cry. I can't imagine the pain of losing a child, and I won't pretend to understand. I will just say that I am so sorry for your loss.

As for your answers, so honest and thought provoking. I also did not think about the wife after the birth. But I'm sure that she wanted that baby just as much, and probably grieved just as much as Janine.

I so agree with you on the being considerate with others. I actually talked about that in my post that goes up tomorrow. It's wonderful that you were able to call your friends on it, and they were able to really see how their offhanded comments could be really hurtful

Bea said...

Your first two answers I was just nodding.

The third was especially interesting, in the fact that you have managed to find this understanding with your friends. Yes, they will say careless things from time to time, but you can call them on it and they have a chance to correct themselves. A very good policy for diffusing the tension and respecting everyone involved.


Rachael said...

Veeery interesting point of who mourned Angela. The wife and Janine, presumably.... interesting, though. I bet the Wife was given time by her friends to mourn, whereas Janine was shunted off immediately to another Commander.

kate said...

I read the book years ago, when i was a young teen i think. Now i suppose i should read it again....i remember it is a very good book.

Lori said...

Julia, you bring up so many points I didn't think of.

I especially like the way you looked so thoroughly at Angela. I appreciated seeing this scene through your eyes.

I am so sorry for the loss of your son.

The Town Criers said...

Oh my G-d, I could sit and talk with you about this book for hours.

Your thoughts on the Wife of Warren were fascinating and I think even more interesting (for myself) is the way I dismissed her. As if she didn't deserve the child or love her enough. It hadn't occurred to me how Janine reclaimed her name nor how the wife didn't have a name (though Serena Joy was never Wife of Fred).

Even moreso, this quote struck me as so incredibly, starkly true: "In my early days of grieving I remember thinking that it must be easier to take the loss of your baby if you knew there was something desperately wrong with them, that the baby wouldn't live. How silly of me. It doesn't matter what the objective truth was. This was still a baby, loved and wanted, dreamed about."

Drowned Girl said...

Beautiful and very moving answers. I was also very struck by the birth scene, and the way in which the wife was at the centre while poor Janine laboured invisibly and handed over her child.

My own perspective, egg donation with a close friend donating, makes me very sensitive to what I saw as the sidelining of Janine, using her as a mere tool.

I didn't register the loss of the baby in the same way. The book obviously speaks to us all in different ways, depending on our experience. Your pain is so palpable, unable to really KNOW what happened to the baby, or why ... I'm so sorry for your own loss.


Ms. Infertile said...

Wow, your answers are so thoughtful. Your thoughts on sensitivity being a learned skill -one which I might add not too many people have learned yet - I absolutely agree.

Thank you for sharing.

IVF Clinic India said...

Great Post.....

I found your site on stumbleupon and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

Thanks for sharing....